by: Eva Malis
A pristine forest is pasted on a billboard to advertise an insurance company. Beside it, shining faces with unnatural smiles claim “Guaranteed”. Below it, a patch of yellow native grass dances with a Redbull can, receipt, and plastic grocery bag tangled in its hair.
The drive from southern California to northern California reveals hushed stories of the state, even the world, if one’s eyes are trained to listen. On the I5, bleak gray buildings hover on the horizon as cows line the corrals and bumble towards the fences. The people who deal with the stench daily evade attention as the car whizzes past rows upon rows of luscious monoculture. Along these crop fields pop up signs: “No Water=No Food=No Jobs” or “Congress Created Dust Bowl.” In the rolling golden hills, towering metal grasshoppers swing back and forth, up and down, in the relentless rhythm of extraction as we continue to press down on the gas pedal. Piecing together a string of separations, we can connect whispers of a universal narrative and try to place ourselves amongst the results.
But this drive is only a drive—a strange limbo between two familiar places, where time is sucked into the static of radio stations and our placement on the earth is only an abstract concept. Who thinks twice about the 381 miles we have just traversed despite their doubtless physical magnitude? That distance to us becomes only a car seat nap and glove compartment footrest, or glaring window sunsets and aggressively cutting traffic. To lay out in our minds each mile after mile that stretch between home and destination, and to comprehend the entirety of our displacement, is nearly impossible when we can separate ourselves so easily from the energy required to move. Easy travel is one of many human developments that rewires our understanding and appreciation of place. By erasing our comprehension of physical distance, we alienate our bodies from their placement in the world and forget where we belong.
Upon arrival in our city destination, we find more oversimplifications, more alienations from tangible reality. In this city, stories hover over pavement, silenced by billboards and waiting anxiously for the rain to wash the streets clean. We are placed in a world where materials are right in front of us (sources unknown), people shine on screens in our hands, and green leaves peek through metal grates on the pavement unnoticed. “Nature” is a far-away idea that beautifies some corporate advertisements, holding some recreational value in its foreign pureness. Meanwhile, the trees along the sidewalk soak up the car emissions with browning lichen (a fair warning). These trees must behave themselves, must not grow roots that crumble asphalt, or they will be slipped into the chugging shredder of a “tree care” company. Our undamaged buildings are valued more than photosynthesis, and frankly we have not yet learned how to face natural forces in civilized places where nature is so distant, so supposedly “other”.
Such was the case of the redwood grove on the UC Berkeley campus, a school famous for environmental activism. In a community of 40 environmental clubs, not one managed to care about a grove of redwoods on campus scheduled to be demolished for the construction of a new design tech building. This is not entirely the fault of the organizations—the university is well-practiced at maneuvering discreetly so as not to ignite the activist fire that characterizes the Berkeley community. Yet after months of daily campaigning, a highly devoted community member was able to motivate a handful of individuals to plan a protest at the Groundbreaking Ceremony. This protest fell through when the University lied to the faces of students about the location of the ceremony so as to avoid angry protestors disrupting the kick-off of the new development.
I was one of those individuals who got swept into this hub of radical tree-sitters. When I caught wind of the development plans, a memory of my best friend describing her exciting discovery of that beautiful, secluded spot resurfaced painfully. As a student journalist, I decided to cover the story, and could not extract myself from the situation once involved.
Nobody knew when the trees were to be cut down, and nobody knew the best way to go about stopping them. Guessing that construction could begin over spring break while students were away, an ex-student stayed in the tallest tree one night on a raised platform. Yet on his way down for supplies, this tree-sitter was detained by the cops and charged for “molesting the foliage”. The next day, all the lower branches of the trees had been removed, and a police fence was erected around the entire site (shaded redwood grove and sandy volleyball court). This new addition was accompanied by two uniformed cops, who were to be stationed by the trees 24/7 for an entire month. Not to protect the trees from harm, but rather to claim the authority to strike them down at the university’s convenience. The day after Earth Day, the trees were gone.
This project could have been stopped, at least delayed, with enough media attention. But where were the people? Where was the environmental community of UC Berkeley, projected to comprise of at least 800 students who would likely profess deep love for trees? The new building was funded by Qualcomm, who will now strongly influence and own the student research conducted there, imposing upon students’ rights to their own work. So where was the rest of the student body–each affected by privatization of the public University while tuition still increases due to lack of government funding? Who is there to care when an institution lies to its students so that it can sneak a groundbreaking ceremony (caught on video) behind closed doors and keep its customers silent? The disconnections of people from trees, administration from students, nature from university land, prevented this development project from aligning with the primary concerns of the communities it affected.
So why care about trees in the first place? Why redwoods specifically, and not others? Trees are the generations-old symbol of heart-to-Earth environmentalism, having been on the forefront of the movement since the 1970s. Holding a beauty too powerful for words, trees often stand unprotected because environmentalists are unable to effectively argue their value against the apathetic drive for money. But lately, you’ll hear less youth identifying as “treehuggers” and more as “environmental justice advocates.” You won’t see trees at the frontlines of the People’s Climate March, but instead indigenous and minority communities who are bearing the harshest brunt of environmental injustice and leading the fight for our future.
The truth is, it has taken us 40 years to realize that this movement is not all about trees, and that making it all about trees gets us next to nowhere. We the people of modern America are so disconnected from the land which gives us life that only a small percentage of us actually mourn sabotages to land. But we all still mourn injustices to people, for there is still strength in humanity. Little girls diagnosed with cancer because their elementary school is yards away from a fracking rig. Families who can light their sink water on fire due to pollution, all suffering from brain damage. We are each moved to action for different reasons, and in a world where externalities are felt by faces of all colors and ages, there can be no more ignoring what needs to be done.
We may have forgotten where we’ve come from, and we’ve forgotten where we belong, but we have not forgotten ourselves. No matter how much we distance ourselves from the sources of our existence, we cannot hide indefinitely from the overwhelming presence of the world’s forces. These forces are not to be reckoned with—storms tearing up houses, drought obstructing food production, depleted resources reacting to exploitation in unforeseeable ways. And now we are shifting—rebuilding the severed ties of the past, bringing the land back to us, and bringing ourselves to the land. Expert conservationists will tell us now that conservation has been extended to include social and economic issues, because we’ve realized that there is no difference between humans and nature and the largest problems arise from pretending that there is. Urban permaculture, a decentralized and escalating movement, works with the forces of nature in cities to produce quality food for the people while addressing food security, impacts of industrial agriculture, and the multi-tiered disconnections of community resources. The youth of today are storming the streets demanding climate justice now for their own livable futures, blockading development of the Keystone XL pipeline, coming together to address the largest crisis of the world that they have been born into.
Perhaps we can forget the distance traversed in long car rides for now, but this will not continue as the fossil fuel industry wobbles on its last leg. Reminded of the broader scope of intertwined ecosystems that we belong to, we shape our solutions accordingly. People are putting their lives on the line to fight for change, while others will be provoked into action upon finding their family tree touched by pollution-induced cancer or some other consequence. Now is a time of human crisis, and nature is an impromptu enchantress. She will make herself known to us, and we will solve our problems by first acknowledging our appreciation for the life she gives us and then resolving to sustain it.